Guest Author - Cynthia Parker
When she got up that morning, Meaghan felt queasy, had a headache, and just “didn’t feel well.” Her mom knew she had been studying late every night and while Meaghan didn’t have a fever, she did have dark circles under her eyes. When her mom asked if Meaghan wanted to “take a day off”, Meaghan replied that she had a test that day and couldn’t stay home.
Around 2:00 pm, Meaghan’s mom received a call at work to pick up Meaghan from school. Meaghan was still queasy and didn’t look any better than she had that morning. Also, she was complaining that she was experiencing pain in the lower chest area, right at the bottom of her rib cage.
Meaghan’s mother called the doctor’s office and they told her to bring Meaghan in. An exam by the doctor and a few questions later put Meaghan in the hospital. An ultrasound of her heart and a chest x-ray ruled out all possible causes with the exception of esophageal erosions or ulcers. She was scheduled for an endoscopy. The next morning, her endoscopy revealed an esophageal erosion at the base of the esophagus where it enters into the stomach. Excess acid in the stomach aggravated the erosion, causing the pain and preventing the erosion from healing. The underlying cause was ruled to be stress.
Meaghan is an honor student, accomplished musician, well-liked by friends, praised by teachers, and respected for her advice and acceptance of her peers. In her sophomore year, she passed her high school exit exams, made Master and District Orchestra, and ranked high enough on the SAT and ACT to qualify for Life Scholarships and attract the attention of many major universities and music conservatories. There are even offers from two universities with accelerated programs that would allow Meaghan to finish high school while she completed her first two years of her college career. Her goal is to double major in Music and Psychology, with a minor in Culinary Arts. Meaghan is sixteen years old.
Stress is not just for kids with failing grades, peer pressure to smoke, drink, or do drugs, families in crisis, or who otherwise have the odds stacked against them. Teen who appear to “have it all” are also under amazing stress.
The first signal that there is an issue with Meaghan is that she is sixteen years old. At sixteen, young girls should have a social life that includes time with friends. At sixteen, most young girls are just beginning to date. Their world is not made up entirely of academics and scholarly pursuits. Meaghan has a very limited social life and is “afraid” to date. These restrictions have not been put in place by Meaghan’s parents, but rather by Meaghan herself. Meaghan has convinced herself that she must be “perfect.” In a world where little in within the control of the teenage girl, Meaghan has found that her academics are almost completely within her control and has used this fact to create a certainly in her life that allows her to feel as if she is in charge. Unfortunately, she has carried this need for control to the extreme.
Meaghan also has many interests – soccer, music – singing, playing the violin, composing, and an interest in other instruments, cooking, psychology, human development, human diversity, and various cultures, just to name a few. Her friends often come to her when they have problems because she is a good listener and because she responds with genuine concern and caring for them. Teenagers are always looking for someone to listen; however, Meaghan’s friends are like most normal teens, self-absorbed. When Meaghan needs someone to listen, they are not accommodating.
Fortunately, Meaghan and her mom are close and Meaghan talks to her mom on a daily basis about her concerns and hopes for the day and for the future. Her mom is an excellent support system for her; however, her mom is a single parent who works full-time and goes to school. Like Meaghan, she strives for perfection that she knows she cannot obtain. Both walk a tightrope through life and both rely upon each other as a “safety net”, which only adds to the stress.
When the source of Meaghan’s pain was revealed, her mom went into action, as any mother would. Whereas Meaghan had been spending a good deal of time checking out colleges, comparing programs, and considering early graduation/early college entrance, her mother made a few decisions for her. It was decided that Meaghan would not be graduating early, entering college early, or entering into any combination programs where she could do both at the same time. In addition, her mother suggested that rather than taking all Honors courses, Meaghan needed to consider dropping some of her courseload to Advanced classes, to relieve some of the pressure. Also, knowing the importance of music in Meaghan’s life and that it was a source of comfort to Meaghan, her mother suggested that she might want to use her electives to focus on her music and not worry about building up academic credits that she didn’t really need. Finally, her mom insisted that she spend more time with friends and incorporate social activities in to her schedule. Meaghan had been attempting to fill her summer with a part-time job, a six-week volunteer assignment, and a two week intensive music program at a local university. Her mom insisted that Meaghan concentrate on being a teenager for this summer rather than concentrate on building her academic resume.
I realize that there are parent’s out there right now who are cringing at the “irresponsibility” of Meaghan’s mom towards Meaghan’s academic career. Let’s remember once again that Meaghan is sixteen.
There are so many pressures in the world for our young people today. In addition to the ones mentioned earlier that we all worry about – drugs, alcohol, peer pressure, sex, sexual abuse, etc. – the “need” to develop our children’s education at an earlier age in order to keep pace with other countries seems to be overwhelming. What today’s parents learned in first grade is now taught in kindergarten or pre-school. For example, many children do not learn to read in first grade anymore; they usually enter first grade already knowing how to read. No longer is there “recess” in middle school. Our children are rushed through lunch in 20-25 minutes and rushed back to class. Their minds are constantly being stuffed with new information and more information than ever before. Yes, the education system in the United States needs to be improved; however, pressuring our children is not the answer to that improvement. Being aware that many adults do not handle pressure well in today’s society, how can we possibly believe that our young people are equipped to handle it any better?
Every child is different. They have their own interests and their own goals. They have their own directions in life, and – while as parents we don’t like to accept this – those directions may not always coincide with our own. We need to allow them to explore and find their own way instead of always insisting upon what we think is “better” for them. At the same time, we must, as parents, know when to step in and say, “Enough is enough.”
Meaghan’s mom had been feeling uneasy for a time before Meaghan’s health took a turn for the worse. But she was afraid to intervene for fear that her concerns would be seen as discouragement towards Meaghan’s academic pursuits. Meaghan has great friends, has no interest in drugs or alcohol, doesn’t cut school, makes great grades, and “loves” school. There was nothing in Meaghan’s life that her mother needed to worry about – except that perhaps she was pushing herself a bit too hard. She didn’t want to discourage Meaghan for fear that the resulting issues could be worse than anything she had to worry about now.
It is doubtful that Meaghan’s attitude towards school or her choice of friends would have changed if her mother had told her that she didn’t need to push herself so hard academically. It is probable that she would have been confronted with more opportunities to engage in behavior involving drugs and alcohol if she had more of a social life, but it is not likely that she would have made different choices when faced with those opportunities. Meaghan’s view of such behavior is strongly engrained. Thankfully, the extent of the physical toll on Meaghan was minimum and there is a clear-cut treatment for her physical symptoms. In addition, Meaghan and her mother are working together to cut Meaghan’s stress and to help Meaghan realize that she needs to begin “paring down” her interests to those that are most important to her so that she might pursue what makes her happiest without trying to pursue everything and overwhelming herself.
As with any behavior pattern, the solution is not an “overnight fix.” They will continue to work together to find the solutions which best work for Meaghan. Individual and family counseling, meditation, yoga and other relaxation classes, music therapy, and exercise are just a few of the options available to Meaghan that are being considered. Meaghan doesn’t have to give up her dreams or her ambitious drive in order to have a happy, balanced, productive life. She needs to learn not to create stress in her life and how to handle the stress that is inevitable.